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June 19, 2012

Obama to meet Russian, German leaders

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (UPI)

LOS CABOS, Mexico (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama planned private meetings with the leaders of Russia and Germany Monday before the Group of 20 summit in Mexico.

Obama's first tete-a-tete was with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- their first since Putin returned to the presidency six weeks ago. Obama later was to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A White House official said the meeting with Putin was set for 12:15 p.m. EDT to try to smooth over strained relations, and the meeting with Merkel was scheduled at 2:30 p.m. amid jitters related to the European economy and tensions in the Arab world.

"President [Vladimir] Putin clearly is somebody who can articulate where he has differences with the United States, but we can also articulate where we have differences with Russia," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said at a White House press briefing.

"I expect that it will be a candid discussion, it will get down to business, that we'll be able to sustain cooperation in some areas, we'll have differences in other areas. And we'll work to try to bridge those differences, because the relationship between the United States and Russia is in our interest, it's in Russia's interest, but also it's in the interest of the world community," Rhodes said.

Rhodes said a Washington-Moscow standoff over Syria hasn't unraveled Obama's "reset" in relations with Russia, pointing to cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear non-proliferation.

"The reset with Russia was based on the belief that we could cooperate with them on areas of common interest, understanding that we'd still have some differences," Rhodes said.

"And it's our view that just because you have difference on certain issues doesn't mean that you want to throw aside the very substantial cooperation that we're getting with the Russians, again, on issues from Afghanistan to Iran to nuclear security," he said.

In March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov symbolically pressed a "reset" button after U.S.-Russia relations became strained during the George W. Bush administration.

On April 15, 2010, RIA Novosti said the reset was one of Obama's biggest foreign policy achievements.

"Obama has taken a pragmatic approach to Russia," the state-owned Russian news agency said. "He refuses to cast Russia as an enemy."

But relations have since become strained and Rhodes said at the briefing Friday the United States had "a very substantial difference with Russia on the issue of Syria."

Russia, supported by Iran, continues to back Syrian President Bashar Assad and has refused to endorse plans for his exit. The United States and Arab states have called for Assad to go and have embraced the rebels.

In the latest disagreement, Clinton accused Russia last week of shipping attack helicopters to the Assad army in its bloody crackdown on the uprising.

Lavrov denied the claim and accused Washington of arming the Syrian rebels -- a charge Washington denied.

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